The Sunday Leader

A Fight For Equal Access

By Easwaran Rutnam

Dr Ajith C. S. Perera

It was a fight for equal rights, a fight which ended in victory last week. Dr Ajith C. S. Perera, a former umpire and now fervent advocate promoting accessibility said months of campaigning finally saw the Supreme Court issuing an order last week to ensure that those with restricted ability is given every opportunity to integrate freely with the community.

On the eve of umpiring his first cricket test match in Colombo in 1992, a large wayside tree crashed on and straddled his moving car, killing his chauffer and leaving him instantaneously a paraplegic for life.

Since then Dr Perera has been pushing for the disabled to have equal access in public places so that they feel part of society.

He has aggressively promoted in Sri Lanka the concept of ‘Social Inclusion for All’ focusing on built environments that does not marginalise or discriminate against people on the grounds of inevitable diversity in ability and campaigned against arbitrary categorisation of people.
His long years of pioneering voluntary endeavours with unreserved commitment, competence, and invaluable contribution to the promotion and establishment of ‘Accessibility to the Built Environment’, enhancing social inclusion with safety for all, have been befittingly recognised and warmly appreciated by several reputed bodies.

Last week the Supreme Court issued an order to government agencies who were told to ensure compliance with an earlier court order issued in April 2011 on the disabled or those with restricted ability have easy access to public places. The Registrar of the Supreme Court had been directed to communicate this order.

The Supreme Court has further directed the Attorney General to ensure this is given its full effect by directing the authorities to take immediate steps to sensitize the private sector to take appropriate steps in compliance.

This was the final outcome to the hearing held on June 17, 2013 of a re-activated public interest litigation fundamental rights petition filed by Dr Ajith Perera. He is calling for unhindered access to the state and private sector public buildings and facilities regardless of one’s degree of physical ability.

Dr Perera, again appearing in person on a wheelchair, successfully pursued the case single handedly.

Amidst on-going awareness programmes, a copy of the circular MSS/7/8/ACC issued by the Ministry of Social Services on October 4, 2012 that was produced at the hearing of the petition by the Deputy Solicitor General Sanjay Rajaratnam reveals, “Although a long time has passed since issuing accessibility regulations, still, public buildings are constructed without accessibility facilities….”.

The Supreme Court also made the observation that the circular addressed to all the Ministries, all Provincial Ministries and Secretaries encompassing new and renovated buildings is very comprehensive and once again, Social Services Ministry requests government agencies to implement the earlier given Court orders.

Although ten months have gone since issuing this circular, Dr Perera pointed out that hardly anything has resulted even from this repeated appealing as the violators continue to roam freely and the victims, unable still to enjoy the right to access, are made to suffer at the mercy of violators.

“We still see even the ONGOING renovation work at several reputed hotels and hospitals in Colombo itself – which means a second opportunity to rectify earlier done costly mistakes – where the stipulated performance specifications and standards are being violated continually. It is indeed a national tragedy that the empowered authorities continue to give a blind eye in passing building plans and issuing certificate of conformity (COC), disregarding the procedures even approved unanimously by the parliament on March 20, 2007 and furthermore blatantly violating the orders of the country’s apex court,” he said.

Perera further said that to optimise the results of development programmes reaching everyone and especially further promote the lucrative tourism industry, facilities at buildings, and hotels in particular, must henceforth be designed under proper guidance of experts for full participation of the public with ease and safety, regardless of individuals’ degrees of ability.

He stressed the crucial need for the government to soon bring special legislation in the greater national interest, to have an effective mechanism to implement accessibility regulations in a meaningful manner.

“It is the fervent hope of everyone that at least President Rajapaksa will recognise the rich dividends accessibility brings to the country, all people and development work and thereby expedite enforcing needful effective measures,” he said.

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